Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Restoring the Ancestor Ceremony, Part 2

Suggested Ancestor Ceremony

Not everything works for every situation. What’s more important than following some “cookbook” ceremony recipe is to develop genuine connection with you departed ancestors. Now, here’s where it gets tricky. Our traditions and those of other cultures forbid “calling” the departed to return. For many, calling a departed person to return is one step away from binding them to do your bidding on the other side, and therefore sorcery. I was taught that when someone passed, it’s not proper for us to bother them. However, we can certainly let them know that they’re welcome, that a place is set for them at the table.

Ancestor Worship?

Anthropologists have suggested that all religion originates from the urge to honor or placate or communicate with departed ancestors. In the Bible, God is the father of Adam, and therefore a common ancestor of all humanity. In the Cherokee story, Skywoman or Starwoman is the child of the Lord of Heaven before she falls to earth and gives birth to humankind. Even the English word “God” comes from the proper name “Gotha,” the original ancestress of the Goths. 

Those who have been deployed to Asia know what great risks rural people will take to tend the graves of their ancestors, even crossing war zones to do it. The list of examples is almost endless.

How well do you know your ancestors? How many can you name? Can you draw a quick chart of your ancestors for the past four or five generations? What do you know of their lives, their struggles, their joys? I know that my great-grandfather Sterling was a little boy when the Civil War broke out. I know that my grandmother Josephine was a farmgirl who had her only child at 17, and didn’t learn to read until years later. I know that one line of my family picked the losing side against a powerful feudal family, and was exiled to the countryside. I know who was poor, and who was dirt poor. I know that my ancestors fought both for and against the United States.

Family Shrine

In some cultures there is a formal family shrine. In America, we tend to be less formal, but the idea is still good. I know Native mixed-blood people who can trace their ancestry to Constantine and Tiberius, and to migrants who came up from the Yucatan centuries and millennia ago. Yes, genealogy is time-consuming and can be expensive, but it’s the only way to really know your ancestors. A family shrine can be as simple as a set of photos or a wall, or a few heirlooms on a shelf on in a box. Does your family have a motto or favorite saying?

Ideally, an ancestor ceremony is within the family or extended family or community. Prepare a good dinner (whether that means lunch or supper in your region!) and call the family together. If a particular dish was a favorite of an ancestor, tell people! So much is lost because of “I thought everybody knew that” or “I didn’t think anyone else cared.”


It may be good prior to eating to honor specific ancestors, especially those who have passed in the last year. Those who are honoring an individual should come prepared with stories, photos, and mementos.

•    Gather before the meal. Set up photos, albums, heirlooms, especially of common ancestors.

•    Set an extra seat and place setting for any of the ancestors who might “arrive.” This isn’t an episode of “Ghost Hunters” – don’t expect voices and visitations. The important part isn’t that they “eat the food” or “smell the flowers,” but that you make the offer.

•    Recall events, preferences, stories of the ancestors. Recall their names. Some believe it’s wrong to speak the name of a deceased person, because it suggests calling them back. But in English we add “the late” to the name, so you can think of that as a way of changing the name. Obey your own local customs in this.
•    Sing some of their favorite songs. Most importantly, let them know that you are grateful for everything they passed on to you, including your DNA codes, and that they are welcome to drop in if they feel like it. They are still your family, and always will be.
•    After the meal and before the group breaks up, take the food from their plate outside as a spirit plate. This way, gifts are still being made for them, from them, in their name.

•    We tend to close out with our all-purpose funeral and closing song, the Cherokee version of “Amazing Grace.” Since it was probably played at their funeral, it keeps continuity. If nobody knows this song, perhaps sing another funeral song, or a song that was a favorite of an ancestor. 


As we look at the circle of life from a Native viewpoint, there’s seldom a definite line between the living and the deceased. The other side is just “over yonder” or “toward the darkening sunset,” not “the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns” as Shakespeare calls it.

We believe that your departed family still watches. As you look around to the mementos of the departed, look again to what lessons and practices and principles you leave for your descendants. 

Brian Wilkes

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Restoring the Ancestor Ceremony, Part 1

Ancestor Ceremony

For several years now, both online and in the annual Cherokee Calendar, I’ve mentioned the Ancestor Ceremony observed in February Midwinter as a common memorial for all who have crossed over in the winter months.  This year, I’m getting a lot of questions from people who would like to revive this ceremony in their family.

Walking Through Bones

The month of February is called Kagali in Cherokee, “bony.” The crunchy snow crust makes a sound like walking through a field of bones – at least in the minds of shivering Cherokees. Those mountains get cold! It’s also a time when a few months of preserved foods, combined with occasional game meats left many people undernourished, with a “bony” look. It was also the time of year when it was (and still is) easy to die from accident, exposure, or the combined effects of a life of hardship combined with a weakened state. Those who survived until the Green Grass counted themselves a year older.

It’s not clear just when Cherokees and other mountain people began this observance. It may have been linked to the ceremony to repel harmful outside spiritual influences. In that ceremony, the group is “invaded” by masked characters originally representing malevolent disease-carrying spirit creatures, and later representing intrusive non-Cherokees. They are placated by the Cherokee hosts, and tricked into leaving. This is called in Cherokee “They Wear Masks”, or more commonly in English the “Booger (boogeyman) Dance.”

Feeding the Ancestors

Gifting or feeding departed ancestors is a common theme worldwide. Some cultures do it through fire, others place offerings in the rivers.

Among some nations, the gravesite resembles a miniature house, and food and water are left for those times when the spirit of the deceased chooses to visit. In one famous exchange, a missionary insensitively asked a Creek elder just when he thought his ancestors would return to eat the food he was always leaving for them. “The same day YOUR ancestors come back to smell those flowers YOU keep leaving for them,” was the reply. 

Recent Example

A Cherokee mixed-blood woman with whom I work described her family’s tradition from about 1970:
On a day in February determined by her grandmother, the family would gather and take tables and chairs out to the family cemetery, which was on the property. They would set up for a typical covered dish – typical, except that they were sitting in a cemetery in the cold. A meal was eaten, an empty chair would be added to the table to which full  portions of food were added and left at each grave. Many are familiar with the “spirit plate” practice; this is just a little more individualized.  
The grandmother was also a calendar-keeper, and had her calendar stones in a small leather bag that nobody else was allowed to touch. She went to each of the headstones, and set out certain of the calendar stones and crystals atop each headstone.  A first glance, this would be similar to the European custom of leaving a pebble atop a headstone when visiting.  But there was some significance to the stones, and she remembers that the most senior ancestor in the graveyard received decoration of the greatest number of stones. One possibility is that the calendar keeper, the eldest elder present, was spelling out an important date on the headstone of each of the deceased, perhaps their birth date.
My source was rather young at the time, and understood all of this as her family being “weird,” doing something to humor grandma, and wanting it to be over so she and her young cousins could go inside, get warm, play and watch cartoons.  The deeper meanings were never explained to her. Today, of course, she wishes she had listened and observed more closely, as her grandmother is embraced within her mother.
Don’t we all wish we had listened more?
Suggested procedure to restore the Ancestor Ceremony within your family.